June 18, 2019 | 68° F

COUTO: Paid parental leave is fundamental right, must be granted

Opinions Column: Through the Looking Glass

Two years ago I had a job as a teaching assistant, working with children at a local daycare center ranging from a few weeks old to the age of 4. Not a single day went by where at least one parent didn't feel the need to profusely apologize for leaving their child in the care of others due to demanding work hours. I recall one particular mother who almost drove herself to tears when she’d be late to collect her 3-month-old. Is this the kind of life we want for our nation’s hardworking parents — to be forced to spend extensive hours parted from their infants at a time when that parental connection is essential for healthy development? In 2015, CNN reporters Kelly Wallace and Jen Christensen presented their research findings on over 20 studies regarding the positive effects of paid parental leave. Some of the benefits include a reduction of the “infant mortality rate by as much as 10 percent,” an increase in the likelihood that children will obtain proper immunizations and an overall improvement of the mother’s mental health. Moreover, researchers have concluded that paid leave also “benefits women economically because they tend to go back to work and stay with the same employer, which means their wages grow at a faster rate afterwards.”

Hence, if paid parental leave has proven to do more good than harm, why is it that the United States continues to refrain from implementing its use? According to an article published by NPR, the United Nations is comprised of 193 countries, four of which do not offer paid parental leave: “New Guinea, Suriname, a few South Pacific island nations and the United States.” These statistics are, frankly, absurd. How can the United States be commemorated as “the leader of the free world” if it won’t even provide its families with such a basic need? The United States would do well to follow the example of countries such as France and Canada, both of which have set up governments that “rely on a social insurance structure, where small contributions create a pool of money that workers can draw from when they need to leave.” These contributions are received from various sectors — “employers, employees, and the government’s general revenue” — all of which are paid “through a social insurance system, so that no business has a heavy burden.”

Furthermore, it is necessary to stress the importance of a paid leave system that covers both maternal as well as paternal interests. In our patriarchal culture, it’s easy to forget that the father can and should take part in childcare duties. This issue was recently brought to attention by actress Anne Hathaway who, on International Women’s Day, gave a poignant speech at the United Nations that highlighted the sheer irrationality of the United States’ parental leave policy — or lack thereof — and how the reluctance to include men in parental leave policies is not only detrimental to the wellbeing of the family as a whole, but promotes the sexist concept that a woman’s place is in the home: “American women are currently entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. American men are entitled to nothing … The assumption and common practice that women and girls look after the home and the family is a stubborn and very real stereotype that not only discriminates against women but limits men’s participation and connection within the family and society.”

On the contrary, one country that does not adhere to an exclusively “maternal leave status quo” is that of Sweden, which provides its families with 480 days of paid parental leave that can be equally shared between both parents. Likewise, Norway and Iceland — along with Sweden — actually require that its fathers take time off as part of their policies. According to an article on ThinkProgress, studies have shown that if men witness colleagues going on paternity leave, they are “11 percent more likely” to undergo a leave themselves when they have children of their own. In other words, by including fathers in the family unit, we can, in fact, reduce the stigma that surrounds traditional gender roles in childcare responsibilities.

Thus, I believe the United States should look to other modernized nations as proper examples of what it means to give parents the much-needed and deserved support in caring for and creating happy, healthy families. Raising children is no small feat — being a parent is a full-time job, except that you’re on call 24/7, and there are no vacation days. If the United States wants to sustain its progressive reputation, it should implement common sense and provide its citizens with basic rights, preferably ones that respect and aid the hardworking men and women of its country.

Ana Couto is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in English and journalism and media studies. Her column, "Through the Looking Glass," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Ana Couto

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